Managing Conflict is an Inside Job

Managing conflict can be hard

I don’t know too many people who enjoy  dealing with conflict, and yet, conflict is a normal part of life, providing numerous opportunities for growth through improved understanding and insight. In my experience, there’s a tendency to view conflict as a negative experience, because it can be extremely disruptive and emotionally draining, especially if the conflict is protracted.  Yet, conflict can also be quite simply  ‘any situation in which our concerns or desires differ from those of another person’.    While this definition speaks to a less intense side of conflict, we must respect that within its elegant simplicity lies a complex set of issues to address.

thinking head

The Inside Game

When it comes to handling challenging situations, how we choose to respond really is an inside game.  When conflict arises, if we aren’t equipped with the skills and knowledge required to manage the situation, our emotions will take over, and before we know it, find ourselves responding in old and familiar ways.

Several years ago while  attending a Personality Typing conference,  I participated in a breakout session on ‘Attachment’.  We learned about our subconscious attachment to things, people, even ideas, and how we suffer at the loss of our stuff. (I’m simplifying )  I hadn’t given much thought to my own attachments but knew I’d get a lesson soon enough.    The next day, conscious of my tendencies to sit in the same spot most of the time, I thought I’d change things up by moving to a different place in the room.  I picked my spot and  placed my purse and materials on a chair.  And then it happened!  within a matter of minutes  a woman came up behind me declaring “that’s MY chair, I was sitting there yesterday.”  How ironic, given the previous day’s lecture. The reason I share this example however is because of the way I responded.  I didn’t stop to think about what the situation called for, I just responded, like I have a thousand times before – to defend – in this case my seating choice that day.



If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Abraham Maslow


Tools, Tools…. and more Tools

Fortunately, we have more than the metaphorical ‘hammer’ at our disposal.  There are a variety of methods and tools available to help us develop our conflict handling skills, including the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument.

In the 1970s, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that vary in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a preferred conflict resolution style. However they also noted that different styles were most useful in different situations. They developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) which helps you to identify which style you tend towards when conflict arises.

During  our Conflict Management workshop, participants are introduced to five styles for handling conflict.  The workshop is designed among other things, to help participants identify their conflict handling style and to become aware of how they may be over or underusing each of the styles:

  1.  Competingthe goal is to win
  2.  Collaborating the goal is to find a win-win solution
  3.  Compromisingthe goal is to find middle ground
  4.  Avoiding the goal is to delay
  5.  Accommodating the goal is to yield

At a workshop I was leading a few months ago, Catherine (not her real name) confided that her supervisor regularly failed to copy her on email.   When I asked what she had done to resolve the issue, she said ‘nothing.’  Catherine  was visibly frustrated but was proud of the way she was “AVOIDING the problem.   For some reason she believed her supervisor was deliberately keeping her out of the loop and she didn’t want to make waves.  Without realizing it, Catherine was overusing the Avoiding response in this situation.  Her need to be informed about work related activities was not being met and although she hadn’t said anything about it – conflict was brewing.   Catherine  admitted that she had adopted an AVOIDING strategy as a way of tamping down her more natural and direct way of dealing with things (the COMPETING style) – at home and work.  She felt it was the only way to keep herself out of trouble.  At work she was concerned her more direct approach would not be well received, and feared she could lose her job.

Through discussion and role play Catherine came to appreciate that relying on one approach to her challenges didn’t help to resolve them.  And, by the end of the Workshop she was encouraged and empowered enough to consider a more appropriate response to the situation she was in with her supervisor.

People who are effective at managing conflict:

  1. Play the inside game – they assess the situation.   They ask themselves – What need or desire is not being met, etc.
  2. Own 100% of their contribution to the situation at hand
  3. Choose how they wish to respond
  4. Take action.  They seek resolution

What’s your style?

The saying ‘there’s a time and a place for everything’ is equally true when it comes to using different conflict handling styles.

 The Competing mode  is an appropriate response when you have to:

  1. Take quick action
  2. Make unpopular decisions
  3. Stand up for vital issues.

The Collaborating Mode is an appropriate response for:

  1. Integrating Solutions
  2. Learning
  3. Merging Perspectives

The Compromising Mode  an appropriate approach for:

  1. Resolving issues of Moderate importance
  2. Reaching resolution with Equal Power and Strong Commitment, and
  3. Creating Temporary Solutions

 The Avoiding Mode is  an appropriate response for:

  1. Leaving unimportant issues alone
  2. Reducing Tensions
  3. Buying time
  4. Knowing your limitations
  5. Allowing other ownership
  6. Recognizing issues as symptoms

The Accommodating Mode is an appropriate response for:

  1. Showing reasonableness
  2. Developing performance
  3. Creating goodwill
  4. Keeping ‘Peace’
  5. Retreating
  6. Maintaining perspective


Every conflict we face in life is rich with positive and negative potential. It can be a source of inspiration, enlightenment, learning, transformation, and growth–or rage, fear, shame, entrapment, and resistance. The choice is not up to our opponents, but to us, and our willingness to face and work through them.

Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith

Less Conflict, better results

In an article on managing team conflict  Cynthia Phillips  writes “Conflict arises from the clash of perceptions, goals, or values in an arena where people care about the outcome” (Alessandra, 1993, p. 92). If the management of that conflict is not effective, it can totally disrupt the entire group process. However the old saying “that which does not kill us will make us stronger” illustrates how successfully managed conflict can benefit the group.

Offering team leaders and group members the opportunity to learn how to manage conflict is one of the first steps in helping them work through solutions and address underlying concerns.   Contact us to discuss to learn how our Conflict Management workshop can help.  Or find out what your True Colors are by taking our assessment here 

Gillian Andries, is a Life & Career Coach and a certified True Colors facilitator

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